One of the most popular arts, nearly equal in importance to Zuni jewelry, is Zuni fetishes. The origin of small figures carved of shell and native stone goes so far back into ancient history it may be considered always part of Zuni culture. Unlike other art forms, Zuni fetishes were the sole property of that tribe. Carved animals of the hunt and the field, were traded to Navajos and other Pueblos. Today the Navajos have added fetishes to their talents, but they did not make them traditionally.
The word fetish has negative connotations in American English, but it was applied to these small carvings because they have protective and healing qualities. The Zunis traditionally had six prey animals for the six cardinal directions (counting zenith and nadir—up and down) and the most senior prey animal is the mountain lion. These days the term “Beast Gods” is often used but the Zunis object to the designation as misleading. Clearly it is good marketing. It sounds more powerful than “prey animals.”
The stone animals, sometimes very realistic, sometimes symbolic, were blessed and then carried on the person of the owner. They were for good luck—both hunting and gambling—safety, healing, but mainly for protection. If one carried the appropriate fetish it helped keep a person from harm.
For the Navajos, Zuni fetishes of horses and sheep protected their herds from harm and guaranteed increase. The Zunis provided these for a fee. The Navajos believed they had to get them from the Zunis, because they didn’t know how to activate the power of the fetish. By the middle of the last century Anglo tourists had discovered these amulets—they were small back then—and wanted to own one or more. They were incorporated into jewelry and strung as necklaces. Animals like owls were added to the pantheon because the white ladies collected owls and other animals. Gradually more and more creatures were being carved. Today there is probably no animal—real or extinct or mythological—that has not been carved.
The famous folk carver Leonard Halate achieved status with his funky, often very distorted, “dinosaurs” made of anything handy. Their very crookedness and their toothy smiles made them desirable, a case of crudeness being valuable. Leonard only turned to fetishes late in life when his manual dexterity and eyesight were failing. His dragons and alligators might not be traditional, but they were charming.
There were a number of families which became dynastic in the art. One of the earliest and most famous fetish carvers was Leekya Deyuse who later became a silversmith as well. Once upon a time he sold fetishes by the bucketful for fifty cents apiece (one trader said even less). Now a single fetish can fetch thousands.
Several of Leekya’s children continued making fetishes. One daughter carved in the same style. His son Francis started out as a silversmith, but turned to carving late in life. After a stroke he only had the use of one arm, but he didn’t let that stop him. His fetishes are approaching his father’s in value. Several of Francis’ children continue on. One of the distinctive elements of the Leekya carvings is their use of “Zuni rock” found near the village. It is most common in yellow and white, but there is a rarer brown version.
Freddy, Delvin and Hayes carve in the family style which is characterized by chubby figures with an enigmatic smile, the thing that made Leekya famous. Now great-grandson Enrique is gaining in fame. He and his father Freddy carve almost anything—Enrique recently started kangaroo mice, a very local animal. They carve delightful figures, like an ancient hunter, armed, with a deer over his shoulder. The antlers are carved in different material.
Today, almost any material is carved, every animal is fair game, and styles have become very refined and very personal. Antler has always been used as a medium for fetishes and a few carvers have capitalized on its authentic look. Jimmy Boone used to scorch his finished pieces with a torch, giving them an old and mellow aura. One of the most talented artists today is Esteban Najera, but he has long since left the realm of Zuni fetishes. Esteban has carved whole skeleton rock bands—half a dozen musicians and their instruments—in what would be called Calaveras style made famous by Mexican artist Jose Posada. There is nothing Esteban’s skeletons cannot do, including skate boarding.
Like so many native arts, fetish carving has gone far beyond its cultural roots, become an important economic factor in the village of Zuni. Purists can still find plenty of traditional pieces, and those with a modern artistic taste can buy elaborate, and very large “table fetishes” in virtually any subject matter.